With all the press scrambling to tell parents just to leave their kids to cry-it-out at night (see my response to the latest here), I thought I’d just present a few of the many reasons a baby or toddler may be waking and/or crying in the night. And why you should respond.
- They are hungry. Especially younger babies need to nurse frequently and expecting them to sleep long stretches without food is actually starving them and messing with their ability to regulate how much they eat at a given time.
- They are scared. Night is freaking scary. It’s dark and quiet and eerie. I’ve been scared as an adult when left alone to sleep, is it any wonder our babies and toddlers get scared? Especially if they’ve had a bad dream?
- They need you. Especially around the time of separation anxiety, babies will fear that you aren’t coming back and need to see you and be reassured by your presence. This is one of the hypotheses around why so many families see a “sleep regression” between six months and over a year. But regardless, they are experiencing rather severe anxiety and need to be reassured by your presence.
- They are in pain. For some it’s reflux, for some it’s food intolerance, for some it’s gas, for some it’s teething, for some it’s a growth spurt. And there are probably other reasons I’m not thinking of now too. But our babies are growing at an astronomical rate with so much happening to their bodies and it HURTS. And they need comfort.
- They are learning to move in new ways. One that won’t surprise many parents, but researchers are just figuring out that babies who are learning to crawl tend to wake more at night. Reason is currently unknown but it wouldn’t surprise me to know that some of it comes from muscle pain. Have you ever started using muscles you weren’t using before? Yeah, it hurts. Most parents I know report a similar rise in wakings when babe starts walking and I imagine it would be for the same or similar reasons as with crawling.
- They are, quite simply, awake. As frustrating as it can be, many children go through a period of waking for an extended period at night and want to play (quite like we used to sleep as adults – 2 periods of shorter sleep with an extended waking in between in the middle of the night). These often don’t last too long (a few months perhaps), and no one quite knows why, but they are very normal and your child simply won’t go back to sleep, just as you probably wouldn’t at 4pm.
- They peed or pooed. While younger babies may sleep through this (though often not at the start as they are attuned to this), toddlers who are toilet learned or learning will regularly wake for this reason and sometimes the realization they wet themselves can be traumatic and upsetting. They need to be changed and comforted before being able to return to sleep.
- They are too cold. If they are too hot, it’s a danger, but we often forget that babies can be too cold as well. When a child is cold, they will often search for breastmilk (or formula if that’s what they have) to help warm them. But especially nursing babies will seek out the boob as a source of human contact for warmth and food to warm their bellies. Just please, please be careful to not make them too hot. It’s a huge risk factor for SIDS.
At any point do you look at these reasons and think they are cause to leave a child to scream by themselves? Would you like it if you were ignored during any of these times or forced to lie in bed not moving without comfort? I hope that if you’re able to put yourself in the place of your child and imagine what it’s like feeling any of these things and then imagine how your response must seem, you will see there are a lot of things going on that don’t include a child manipulating you or needing to be taught to sleep. What they need is love and responsiveness so please, give them that instead.
You can also read some of the very normal reasons toddlers wake and cry at night here.